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The Urban Art Mapping Team

Urban Art Mapping is a multi-disciplinary group of faculty and students based at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The faculty co-directors are Dr. Heather Shirey (Art history), Dr. Todd Lawrence (English and Cultural Studies), and Dr. Paul Lorah (Geography). 

Student research collaborators (past and present) include Martin Beck, Tiaryn Daniels, Summer Erickson, Amber Delgado, Summer Erickson, Shukrani Nangwala, Adem Ojulu, Alice Ready, Emma Rinn, Frederica Simmons, Hannah Shogren-Smith, Olivia Tjokrosetio, Chioma Uwagwu, Eve Wasylik, and Rachel Weiher.

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Q&A with Urban Art Mapping 

When did you start working on the project and what was the impetus behind it? 

The Urban Art Mapping research team has been working on street art in St. Paul, MN since 2018. Our project has always been about identifying, documenting, and mapping street art – by which we mean everything from graffiti and tags to stickers, buffs, throw-ups, wheat pastes, murals, and projections. Geographic information systems analysis and ethnographic interviewing have always been a part of our work as well. We started the COVID-19 Street Art Database in April of 2020 when our in-person interviewing had to be shut down because of COVID. Heather Shirey, who was one sabbatical at the time, started looking at COVID pieces online and got the idea that we should start a database. She reached out to her networks and to artists and the submissions started to come in. Then, when George Floyd was killed just over a month later, we knew we had to start a database for street art that appeared as part of the racial justice movement. The neighborhood where we had already been doing work, Midway in St. Paul, turned out the be the epicenter of the uprising in St. Paul. We were suddenly seeing art everywhere and it was telling a story that we felt needed to be preserved.


How are the materials collected? 

We are an exclusively digital archive. We made the decision early on not to collect any physical artifacts. Our database contains only images of street art, and we define that quite broadly – we consider graffiti and stickers to be of equal significance and value to the archive as commissioned murals, for example. Each record has at least one photograph (but sometimes more) and metadata that provides as much information as we have about the piece. We include the name of the artist if we know it and the name of the person who documented it and submitted it to us. We also identify key themes and we write detailed descriptions, providing as much context as we can. This often requires research, so it is slow work, and the database is very much a work in progress. 


The majority of the pieces in our database are document by crowdsourcing. People have taken pictures and then submitted them to us – which anyone can do via either webpage. One of our goals is to decenter authority of the archive. Street art matters because it represents the voices of the community, often providing a counter-institutional perspective, and so a crowd-sourced archive is in keeping with the goals of this art form itself. 


There’s one particular piece that really guides the work we are doing.  This was documented on Hook Fish and Chicken on Lake Street in Minneapolis at the very beginning of July. The piece reads “Don’t let them change the narrative” in scrolling spray painted graffiti, alongside stenciled text with some of George Floyd’s last words. 


We know that BIPOC voices and experiences are underrepresented in archives, and the work of documenting voices and experiences must be done with care—without changing/coopting the narrative. The narrative of this uprising—it’s ongoing and it is complex. It is not neatly wrapped up with one vision of the path for the future. Including a wide variety of works in archive helps us capture that. People have used walls to claim space, tell their stories, express their anger, show their vision for the future: our goal is amplify these voices and experiences and to make sure that these textual and visual messages are not erased.


Additionally, our goal is to create an archive that is not simply a passive collection of images, but one that can go out in the world and do something—we think of it as an activist archive. This is a word in progress, and we anticipate this will happen as the archive is used for teaching anti-racism. 


Are the materials free for use?

The materials are free to use, but we must stress that we do not own the images in the database. Rights are held by the photographers and the artists. Fair use of images for education and research are ok, but any other uses – especially commercial – would need the permission of the rights holders (there is a lengthy statement regarding our policy on the site)


Questions? Comments? Do you have additional information on works in the database? Please contact us! 

  • Instagram: @urbanartmapping

  • Twitter: @mappingart

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